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English Gipsies and Their Language, by Charles G. Leland, [1874], at


The Rommany of the Roads.—The Secret of Vagabond Life in England.—Its peculiar and thoroughly hidden Nature.—Gipsy Character and the Causes which formed it.—Moral Results of hungry Marauding.—Gipsy ideas of Religion. The Scripture story of the Seven Whistlers.—The Baker’s Daughter.—Difficulties of acquiring Rommany.—The Fable of the Cat.—The Chinese, the American Indian, and the Wandering Gipsy.

Although the valuable and curious works of Mr George Borrow have been in part for more than twenty years before the British public,  1 it may still be doubted whether many, even of our scholars, are aware of the remarkable, social, and philological facts which are connected with an immense proportion of our out-of-door population. There are, indeed, very few people who know, that every time we look from the window into a crowded street, the chances are greatly in favour of the assertion, that we shall see at least one man who bears in his memory some hundreds of Sanscrit roots, and that man English born; though it was probably in the open air, and English bred, albeit his breeding was of the roads.

For go where you will, though you may not know it, you encounter at every step, in one form or the other, the Rommany. True, the dwellers in tents are becoming few and far between, because the “close cultivation” of the present generation, which has enclosed nearly all the waste land in England, has left no spot in many a day’s journey, where “the travellers,” as they call themselves, can light the fire and boil the kettle undisturbed. There is almost “no tan to hatch,” or place to stay in. So it has come to pass, that those among them who cannot settle down like unto the Gentiles, have gone across the Great Water to America, which is their true Canaan, where they flourish mightily, the more enterprising making a good thing of it, by prastering graias or “running horses,” or trading in them, while the idler or more moral ones, pick up their living as easily as a mouse in a cheese, on the endless roads and in the forests. And so many of them have gone there, that I am sure the child is now born, to whom the sight of a real old-fashioned gipsy will be as rare in England as a Sioux or Pawnee warrior in the streets of New York or Philadelphia. But there is a modified and yet real Rommany-dom, which lives and will live with great vigour, so long as a regularly organised nomadic class exists on our roads—and it is the true nature and inner life of this class which has remained for ages, an impenetrable mystery to the world at large. A member of it may be a tramp and a beggar, the proprietor of some valuable travelling show, a horse-dealer, or a tinker. He may be eloquent, as a Cheap Jack, noisy as a Punch, or musical with a fiddle at fairs. He may “peddle” pottery, make and sell skewers and clothes-pegs, or vend baskets in a caravan; he may keep cock-shys and Aunt Sallys at races. But whatever he may be, depend upon it, reader, that among those who follow these and similar callings which he represents, are literally many thousands who, unsuspected by the Gorgios, are known to one another, and who still speak among themselves, more or less, that curious old tongue which the researches of the greatest living philologists have indicated, is in all probability not merely allied to Sanscrit, but perhaps in point of age, an elder though vagabond sister or cousin of that ancient language.

For THE ROMMANY is the characteristic leaven of all the real tramp life and nomadic callings of Great Britain. And by this word I mean not the language alone, which is regarded, however, as a test of superior knowledge of “the roads,” but a curious inner life and freemasonry of secret intelligence, ties of blood and information, useful to a class who have much in common with one another, and very little in common with the settled tradesman or worthy citizen. The hawker whom you meet, and whose blue eyes and light hair indicate no trace of Oriental blood, may not be a churdo, or pāsh-ratt, or half-blood, or half-scrag, as a full Gipsy might contemptuously term him, but he may be, of his kind, a quadroon or octoroon, or he may have “gipsified,” by marrying a Gipsy wife; and by the way be it said, such women make by far the best wives to be found among English itinerants, and the best suited for “a traveller.” But in any case he has taken pains to pick up all the Gipsy he can. If he is a tinker, he knows Kennick, or cant, or thieves’ slang by nature, but the Rommany, which has very few words in common with the former, is the true language of the mysteries; in fact, it has with him become, strangely enough, what it was originally, a sort of sacred Sanscrit, known only to the Brahmins of the roads, compared to which the other language is only commonplace Prakrit, which anybody may acquire.

He is proud of his knowledge, he makes of it a deep mystery; and if you, a gentleman, ask him about it, he will probably deny that he ever heard of its existence. Should he be very thirsty, and your manners frank and assuring, it is, however, not impossible that after draining a pot of beer at your expense, he may recall, with a grin, the fact that he has heard that the Gipsies have a queer kind of language of their own; and then, if you have any Rommany yourself at command, he will perhaps rākker Rommanis with greater or less fluency. Mr Simeon, in his “History of the Gipsies,” asserts that there is not a tinker or scissors-grinder in Great Britain who cannot talk this language, and my own experience agrees with his declaration, to this extent—that they all have some knowledge of it, or claim to have it, however slight it may be.

So rare is a knowledge of Rommany among those who are not connected in some way with Gipsies, that the slightest indication of it is invariably taken as an irrefutable proof of relationship with them. It is but a few weeks since, as I was walking along the Marine Parade in Brighton, I overtook a tinker. Wishing him to sharpen some tools for me, I directed him to proceed to my home, and en route spoke to him in Gipsy. As he was quite fair in complexion, I casually remarked, “I should have never supposed you could speak Rommany—you don’t look like it.” To which he replied, very gravely, in a tone as of gentle reproach, “You don’t look a Gipsy yourself, sir; but you know you are one—you talk like one.”

Truly, the secret of the Rommany has been well kept in England. It seems so to me when I reflect that, with the exception of Lavengro and the Rommany Rye,  5 I cannot recall a single novel, in our language, in which the writer has shown familiarity with the real life, habits, or language of the vast majority of that very large class, the itinerants of the roads. Mr Dickens has set before us Cheap Jacks, and a number of men who were, in their very face, of the class of which I speak; but I cannot recall in his writings any indication that he knew that these men had a singular secret life with their confrères, or that they could speak a strange language; for we may well call that language strange which is, in the main, Sanscrit, with many Persian words intermingled. Mr Dickens, however, did not pretend, as some have done, to specially treat of Gipsies, and he made no affectation of a knowledge of any mysteries. He simply reflected popular life as he saw it. But there are many novels and tales, old and new, devoted to setting forth Rommany life and conversation, which are as much like the originals as a Pastor Fido is like a common shepherd. One novel which I once read, is so full of “the dark blood,” that it might almost be called a gipsy novel. The hero is a gipsy; he lives among his kind—the book is full of them; and yet, with all due respect to its author, who is one of the most gifted and best-informed romance writers of the century, I must declare that, from beginning to end, there is not in the novel the slightest indication of any real and familiar knowledge of gipsies. Again, to put thieves’ slang into the mouths of gipsies, as their natural and habitual language, has been so much the custom, from Sir Walter Scott to the present day, that readers are sometimes gravely assured in good faith that this jargon is pure Rommany. But this is an old error in England, since the vocabulary of cant appended to the “English Rogue,” published in 1680, was long believed to be Gipsy; and Captain Grose, the antiquary, who should have known better, speaks with the same ignorance.

It is, indeed, strange to see learned and shrewd writers, who pride themselves on truthfully depicting every element of European life, and every type of every society, so ignorant of the habits, manners, and language of thousands of really strange people who swarm on the highways and bye-ways! We have had the squire and the governess, my lord and all Bohemia—Bohemia, artistic and literary—but where are our Vrais Bohémiens?—Out of Lavengro and Rommany Rye—nowhere. Yet there is to be found among the children of Rom, or the descendants of the worshippers of Rama, or the Doms or Coptic Romi, whatever their ancestors may have been, more that is quaint and adapted to the purposes of the novelist, than is to be found in any other class of the inhabitants of England. You may not detect a trace of it on the roads; but once become truly acquainted with a fair average specimen of a Gipsy, pass many days in conversation with him, and above all acquire his confidence and respect, and you will wonder that such a being, so entirely different from yourself, could exist in Europe in the nineteenth century. It is said that those who can converse with Irish peasants in their own native tongue, form far higher opinions of their appreciation of the beautiful, and of the elements of humour and pathos in their hearts, than do those who know their thoughts only through the medium of English. I know from my own observation that this is quite the case with the Indians of North America, and it is unquestionably so with the Gipsy. When you know a true specimen to the depths of his soul, you will find a character so entirely strange, so utterly at variance with your ordinary conceptions of humanity, that it is no exaggeration whatever to declare that it would be a very difficult task for the best writer to convey to the most intelligent reader an idea of his subject’s nature. You have in him, to begin with, a being whose every condition of life is in direct contradiction to what you suppose every man’s life in England must be. “I was born in the open air,” said a Gipsy to me a few days since; “and put me down anywhere, in the fields or woods, I can always support myself.” Understand me, he did not mean by pilfering, since it was of America that we were speaking, and of living in the lonely forests. We pity with tears many of the poor among us, whose life is one of luxury compared to that which the Gipsy, who despises them, enjoys with a zest worth more than riches.

“What a country America must be,” quoth Pirengro, the Walker, to me, on the occasion just referred to. “Why, my pal, who’s just welled apopli from dovo tem—(my brother, who has just returned from that country), tells me that when a cow or anything dies there, they just chuck it away, and nobody ask a word for any of it.” “What would you do,” he continued, “if you were in the fields and had nothing to eat?”

I replied, “that if any could be found, I should hunt for fern-roots.”

“I could do better than that,” he said. “I should hunt for a hotchewitchi,—a hedge-hog,—and I should be sure to find one; there’s no better eating.”

Whereupon assuming his left hand to be an imaginary hedge-hog, he proceeded to score and turn and dress it for ideal cooking with a case-knife.

“And what had you for dinner to-day?” I inquired.

“Some cocks’ heads. They’re very fine—very fine indeed!”

Now it is curious but true that there is no person in the world more particular as to what he eats than the half-starved English or Irish peasant, whose sufferings have so often been set forth for our condolence. We may be equally foolish, you and I—in fact chemistry proves it—when we are disgusted at the idea of feeding on many things which mere association and superstition render revolting. But the old fashioned gipsy has none of these qualms—he is haunted by no ghost of society—save the policeman, he knows none of its terrors. Whatever is edible he eats, except horse-meat; wherever there is an empty spot he sleeps; and the man who can do this devoid of shame, without caring a pin for what the world says—nay, without even knowing that he does not care, or that he is peculiar—is independent to a degree which of itself confers a character which is not easy to understand.

I grew up as a young man with great contempt for Helvetius, D’Holbach, and all the French philosophers of the last century, whose ideal man was a perfect savage; but I must confess that since I have studied gipsy nature, my contempt has changed into wonder where they ever learned in their salons and libraries enough of humanity to theorise so boldly, and with such likeness to truth, as they did. It is not merely in the absolute out-of-doors independence of the old-fashioned Gipsy, freer than any wild beast from care for food, that his resemblance to a “philosopher” consists, or rather to the ideal man, free from imaginary cares. For more than this, be it for good or for evil, the real Gipsy has, unlike all other men, unlike the lowest savage, positively no religion, no tie to a spiritual world, no fear of a future, nothing but a few trifling superstitions and legends, which in themselves indicate no faith whatever in anything deeply seated. It would be difficult, I think, for any highly civilised man, who had not studied Thought deeply, and in a liberal spirit, to approach in the least to a rational comprehension of a real Gipsy mind. During my life it has been my fortune to become intimate with men who were “absolutely” or “positively” free-thinkers—men who had, by long study and mere logic, completely freed themselves from any mental tie whatever. Such men are rare; it requires an enormous amount of intellectual culture, an unlimited expenditure of pains in the metaphysical hot-bed, and tremendous self-confidence to produce them—I mean “the real article.” Among the most thorough of these, a man on whom utter and entire freedom of thought sat easily and unconsciously, was a certain German doctor of philosophy named P---. To him God and all things were simply ideas of development. The last remark which I can recall from him was “Ja, ja. We advanced Hegelians agree exactly on the whole with the Materialists.” Now, to my mind, nothing seems more natural than that, when sitting entire days talking with an old Gipsy, no one rises so frequently from the past before me as Mr P---. To him all religion represented a portion of the vast mass of frozen, petrified developments, which simply impede the march of intelligent minds; to my Rommany friend, it is one of the thousand inventions of gorgio life, which, like policemen, are simply obstacles to Gipsies in the search of a living, and could he have grasped the circumstances of the case, he would doubtless have replied “Āvali, we Gipsies agree on the whole exactly with Mr P---.” Extremes meet.

One Sunday an old Gipsy was assuring me, with a great appearance of piety, that on that day she neither told fortunes nor worked at any kind of labour—in fact, she kept it altogether correctly.

Āvali, dye,” I replied. “Do you know what the Gipsies in Germany say became of their church?”

Kek,” answered the old lady. “No. What is it?”

“They say that the Gipsies’ church was made of pork, and the dogs ate it.”

Long, loud, and joyously affirmative was the peal of laughter with which the Gipsies welcomed this characteristic story.

So far as research and the analogy of living tribes of the same race can establish a fact, it would seem that the Gipsies were, previous to their quitting India, not people of high caste, but wandering Pariahs, outcasts, foes to the Brahmins, and unbelievers. All the Pariahs are not free-thinkers, but in India, the Church, as in Italy, loses no time in making of all detected free-thinkers Pariahs. Thus we are told, in the introduction to the English translation of that very curious book, “The Tales of the Gooroo Simple,” which should be read by every scholar, that all the true literature of the country—that which has life, and freedom, and humour—comes from the Pariahs. And was it different in those days, when Rabelais, and Von Hutten, and Giordano Bruno were, in their wise, Pariahs and Gipsies, roving from city to city, often wanting bread and dreading fire, but asking for nothing but freedom?

The more I have conversed intimately with Gipsies, the more have I been struck by the fact, that my mingled experiences of European education and of life in the Far West of America have given me a basis of mutual intelligence which had otherwise been utterly wanting. I, myself, have known in a wild country what it is to be half-starved for many days—to feel that all my thoughts and intellectual exertions, hour by hour, were all becoming centered on one subject—how to get something to eat. I felt what it was to be wolfish and even ravening; and I noted, step by step, in myself, how a strange sagacity grew within me—an art of detecting food. It was during the American war, and there were thousands of us pitifully starved. When we came near some log hut I began at once to surmise, if I saw a flour sack lying about, that there was a mill not far distant; perhaps flour or bread in the house; while the dwellers in the hut were closely scanned to judge from their appearance if they were well fed, and of a charitable disposition. It is a melancholy thing to recall; but it is absolutely necessary for a thinker to have once lived such a life, that he may be able to understand what is the intellectual status of those fellow beings whose whole life is simply a hunt for enough food to sustain life, and enough beer to cheer it.

I have spoken of the Gipsy fondness for the hedgehog. Richard Liebich, in his book, Die Zigeuner in ihrem Wesen und in ihrer Sprache, tells his readers that the only indication of a belief in a future state which he ever detected in an old Gipsy woman, was that she once dreamed she was in heaven. It appeared to her as a large garden, full of fine fat hedgehogs. “This is,” says Mr Liebich, “unquestionably very earthly, and dreamed very sensuously; reminding us of Mahommed’s paradise, which in like manner was directed to the animal and not to the spiritual nature, only that here were hedgehogs and there houris.”

Six or seven thousand years of hungry-marauding, end by establishing strange points of difference between the mind of a Gipsy and a well-to-do citizen. It has starved God out of the former; he inherited unbelief from his half fed Pariah ancestors, and often retains it, even in England, to this day, with many other unmistakable signs of his Eastern-jackal origin. And strange as it may seem to you, reader, his intercourse with Christians has all over Europe been so limited, that he seldom really knows what religion is. The same Mr Liebich tells us that one day he overheard a Gipsy disputing with his wife as to what was the true character of the belief of the Gentiles. Both admitted that there was a great elder grown up God (the baro puro dewel), and a smaller younger God (the tikno tarno dewel). But the wife maintained, appealing to Mr Liebich for confirmation, that the great God no longer reigned, having abdicated in favour of the Son, while the husband declared that the Great older God died long ago, and that the world was now governed by the little God who was, however, not the son of his predecessor, but of a poor carpenter.

I have never heard of any such nonsense among the English wandering Gipsies with regard to Christianity, but at the same time I must admit that their ideas of what the Bible contains are extremely vague. One day I was sitting with an old Gipsy, discussing Rommany matters, when he suddenly asked me what the word was in the waver temmeny jib, or foreign Gipsy, for The Seven Stars.

“That would be,” I said, “the Efta Sirnie. I suppose your name for it is the Hefta Pens. There is a story that once they were seven sisters, but one of them was lost, and so they are called seven to this day—though there are only six. And their right name is the Pleiades.”

“That gudlo—that story,” replied the gipsy, “is like the one of the Seven Whistlers, which you know is in the Scriptures.”


“At least they told me so; that the Seven Whistlers are seven spirits of ladies who fly by night, high in the air, like birds. And it says in the Bible that once on a time one got lost, and never came back again, and now the six whistles to find her. But people calls ’em the Seven Whistlers—though there are only six—exactly the same as in your story of the stars.”

“It’s queer,” resumed my Gipsy, after a pause, “how they always tells these here stories by Sevens. Were you ever on Salisbury Plain?”


“There are great stones there—bori bars—and many a night I’ve slept there in the moonlight, in the open air, when I was a boy, and listened to my father tellin’ me about the Baker. For there’s seven great stories, and they say that hundreds of years ago a baker used to come with loaves of bread, and waste it all a tryin’ to make seven loaves remain at the same place, one on each stone. But one all’us fell off, and to this here day he’s never yet been able to get all seven on the seven stones.”

I think that my Gipsy told this story in connection with that of the Whistlers, because he was under the impression that it also was of Scriptural origin. It is, however, really curious that the Gipsy term for an owlet is the Māromengro’s Chavi, or Baker’s Daughter, and that they are all familiar with the monkish legend which declares that Jesus, in a baker’s shop, once asked for bread. The mistress was about to give him a large cake, when her daughter declared it was too much, and diminished the gift by one half.

      “He nothing said,
But by the fire laid down the bread,
When lo, as when a blossom blows—
To a vast loaf the manchet rose;
In angry wonder, standing by,
The girl sent forth a wild, rude cry,
And, feathering fast into a fowl,
Flew to the woods a wailing owl.”

According to Eilert Sundt, who devoted his life to studying the Fanten and Tataren, or vagabonds and Gipsies of Sweden and Norway, there is a horrible and ghastly semblance among them of something like a religion, current in Scandinavia. Once a year, by night, the Gipsies of that country assemble for the purpose of un-baptizing all of their children whom they have, during the year, suffered to be baptized for the sake of gifts, by the Gorgios. On this occasion, amid wild orgies, they worship a small idol, which is preserved until the next meeting with the greatest secresy and care by their captain. I must declare that this story seems very doubtful to me.

I have devoted this chapter to illustrating from different points the fact that there lives in England a race which has given its impress to a vast proportion of our vagabond population, and which is more curious and more radically distinct in all its characteristics, than our writers, with one or two exceptions, have ever understood. One extraordinary difference still remains to be pointed out—as it has, in fact, already been, with great acumen, by Mr George Borrow, in his “Gipsies in Spain,” and by Dr Alexander Paspati, in his “Études sur les Tchinghianés ou Bohémiens de l’Empire Ottoman” (Constantinople, 1870); also by Mr Bright, in his “Hungary,” and by Mr Simson. It is this, that in every part of the world it is extremely difficult to get Rommany words, even from intelligent gipsies, although they may be willing with all their heart to communicate them. It may seem simple enough to the reader to ask a man “How do you call ‘to carry’ in your language?” But can the reader understand that a man, who is possibly very much shrewder than himself in reading at a glance many phases of character, and in countless trickeries, should be literally unable to answer such a question? And yet I have met with many such. The truth is, that there are people in this world who never had such a thing as an abstract idea, let us say even of an apple, plumped suddenly at them—not once in all their lives—and, when it came, the unphilosophical mind could no more grasp it, than the gentleman mentioned by G. H. Lewes (History of Philosophy), could grasp the idea of substance without attribute as presented by Berkeley. The real Gipsy could talk about apples all day, but the sudden demand for the unconnected word, staggers him—at least, until he has had some practice in this, to him, new process. And it is so with other races. Professor Max Müller once told me in conversation, as nearly as I can recollect, that the Mohawk Indian language is extremely rich in declension, every noun having some sixteen or seventeen inflexions of case, but no nominative. One can express one’s relations to a father to a most extraordinary extent, among the dilapidated descendants of that once powerful tribe. But such a thing as the abstract idea of a father, or of ‘father’ pur et simple, never entered the Mohawk mind, and this is very like the Gipsies.

When a rather wild Gipsy once gives you a word, it must be promptly recorded, for a demand for its repetition at once confuses him. On doit saisir le mot échappê au Nomade, et ne pas l’obliger à le répéter, car il le changera selon so, façon, says Paspati. Unused to abstract efforts of memory, all that he can retain is the sense of his last remark, and very often this is changed with the fleeting second by some associated thought, which materially modifies it. It is always difficult, in consequence, to take down a story in the exact terms which a philologist desires. There are two words for “bad” in English Gipsy, wafro and vessavo; and I think it must have taken me ten minutes one day to learn, from a by no means dull gipsy, whether the latter word was known to him, or if it were used at all. He got himself into a hopeless tangle in trying to explain the difference between wafro and naflo, or ill, until his mind finally refused to act on vessavo at all, and spasmodically rejected it. With all the patience of Job, and the meekness of Moses, I awaited my time, and finally obtained my information.

The impatience of such minds in narrative is amusing. Let us suppose that I am asking some kushto Rommany chal for a version of Æsop’s fable of the youth and the cat. He is sitting comfortably by the fire, and good ale has put him into a story-telling humour. I begin—

“Now then, tell me this adrée Rommanis, in Gipsy—Once upon a time there was a young man who had a cat.”

Gipsy.—“Yeckorus—’pré yeck cheirusa raklo lelled a matchka”—

While I am writing this down, and long before it is half done, the professor of Rommany, becoming interested in the subject, continues volubly—

—“an’ the matchka yeck sala dicked a chillico apré a rukk—(and the cat one morning saw a bird in a tree”—)

I.—“Stop, stop! Hatch a wongish! That is not it! Now go on. The young man loved this cat so much”—

Gipsy (fluently, in Rommany), “that he thought her skin would make a nice pair of gloves”—

“Confound your gloves! Now do begin again”—

Gipsy, with an air of grief and injury: “I’m sure I was telling the story for you the best way I knew how!”

Yet this man was far from being a fool. What was it, then? Simply and solely, a lack of education—of that mental training which even those who never entered a schoolhouse, receive more or less of, when they so much as wait patiently for a month behind a chair, or tug for six months at a plough, or in short, acquire the civilised virtue of Christian patience. That is it. We often hear in this world that a little education goes a great way; but to get some idea of the immense value of a very little education indeed, and the incredible effect it may have upon character, one should study with gentleness and patience a real Gipsy.

Probably the most universal error in the world is the belief that all men, due allowance being made for greater or less knowledge, or “talents,” have minds like our own; are endowed with the same moral perception, and see things on the whole very much as we do. Now the truth is that a Chinese, whose mind is formed, not by “religion” as we understand it, but simply by the intense pressure of “Old Custom,” which we do not understand, thinks in a different manner from an European; moralists accuse him of “moral obliquity,” but in reality it is a moral difference. Docility of mind, the patriarchal principle, and the very perfection of innumerable wise and moral precepts have, by the practice of thousands of years, produced in him their natural result. Whenever he attempts to think, his mind runs at once into some broad and open path, beautifully bordered with dry artificial flowers,  21 and the result has been the inability to comprehend any new idea—a state to which the Church of the Middle Ages, or any too rigidly established system, would in a few thousand years have reduced humanity. Under the action of widely different causes, the gipsy has also a different cast of mind from our own, and a radical moral difference. A very few years ago, when I was on the Plains of Western Kansas, old Black Kettle, a famous Indian chief said in a speech, “I am not a white man, I am a wolf. I was born like a wolf on the prairies. I have lived like a wolf, and I shall die like one.” Such is the wild gipsy. Ever poor and hungry, theft seems to him, in the trifling easy manner in which he practises it, simply a necessity. The moral aspects of petty crime he never considers at all, nor does he, in fact, reflect upon anything as it is reflected on by the humblest peasant who goes to church, or who in any way feels himself connected as an integral part of that great body-corporate—Society.

Next: Chapter II. A Gipsy Cottage